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A Grand Day Off: No Reservations.

The San Jose Earthquakes reserve squad kicks off its season against the Portland Timbers this Tuesday March 27 - 11 AM sharp at the Earthquakes Training Facility on Coleman Avenue.  After Portland, all of the West Coast rivals will come to town: Vancouver, Chivas USA, Seattle, and the LA Galaxy.

Last June I took a day off - sunny Mondays are always good days to take off - and drove down to take in a reserve game against the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves. I was rewarded with an intense and noisy game, my first look at Turkish forward Sercan Güvenisik before he was signed, and a just a touch of sunburn.

Here’s the article I wrote about that game, and originally posted on my San Jose Mirthquakes blog.  I present it here on Center Line Soccer to highlight the joys of taking in a reserve game this season and supporting the younger Earthquakes players.  Leave your binoculars at home, and take a lawn chair - it’s free of charge and you’ll never get closer to the action.

And, as you pull up to the training pitch, take a glance over your left shoulder and smile to yourself when you imagine how the landscape will look when the new stadium is installed immediately next door.

June 6, 2011:  I sigh as I miss the turn to get into the Nutrilite Training Facility, the location for Monday’s reserve game between the Quakes and LA Galaxy.  The road is not easy to find now that the demolition is complete and the landmarks (such as they are) have been torn down, so I pull a U-turn at the next signal and take another stab at it.  As far as terrain, think bare concrete wasteland abutting the San Jose airport, with a sprinkling of gravel and several potholes left over from a day in the life of Blackburn, Lancashire.  At first you’re not certain it’s the right place, and then you see a few cars, and then notice the Earthquakes sign over the recently unlocked entrance. The pitch has lush, supple grass, but is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire – it feels like a scene from Escape to Victory, but a remake in which Vinnie Jones plays a really good grounds keeper.

I park next to the Galaxy team bus, and briefly consider letting its tires down – after all it’s an intense rivalry between the northern and southern California cities, which is maintained even for reserve games.  I shake the feeling off, and go in and pick a spot halfway between the goal and center lines, unpack my folding chair, and settle down to watch the tail end of training.  My chair is pushed back against the fence and is still only six feet from the touchline; I feel unexpectedly nervous at my exposure to wayward soccer balls if anyone should miss their pass.

I recognize most of the Quakes team – the first team players have finished training and are running wind sprints behind the southern goal, which I shall name here “The ‘In-N-Out Burger’ End”.  The reserves are chipping shots at each other or finishing their stretches in front of the northern goal, hereafter named “The Bleak End”.  There are some new faces – in particular I am interested to see Sercan Güvenisik, a Turkish player who most recently played for Munster of the 3rd Liga in Germany; he wants to play in MLS, and he’s paying his own way to be on trial here today.  Casting my eye over the Galaxatives, I recognize two players: Jovan Kirovski, a former Quake, and Frankie Hejduk, recently arrived from 2008 MLS Cup winners Columbus Crew. At 36, I have to think that this former USMNT player will have a fill in role with LA, yet even here he still carries himself with an experienced swagger that the younger players have yet to master.

The referee’s whistle blows, the game begins, and immediately I am struck with the frequency and intensity of the physical contact; I hear thwacks, grunts and crunching noises I’ve never heard before.  The players are yelling intently, their eyes bulging, highlighting their availability with fingers pointing to the open space they would fill if they got the ball.  I feel the draft from the Quakes rookie goalie, David Bingham, who is controlling the backfield with windmill arm gestures, and shouting to his defense as soon as the ball crosses into the Quakes half. I hear Quakes defender Brandon McDonald controlling everybody else, directing traffic and encouraging or berating his team mates as circumstances dictate. For LA, Hejduk’s superior skill is immediately apparent and he confidently distributes the ball and I can also hear him shouting his own encouragement to LA’s younger players.

And when I say ‘encouragement’ here, we all know that’s a euphemism.  Even in the friendly confines of the undersized Buck Shaw Stadium we cannot hear the details of the players’ verbal communication.  At the reserve game I hear the kind of offensive language that got me in trouble at school - and which I always imagined was sent in the direction of the referee or opposing players, but didn’t really expect to hear it between team mates.  My ears are still burning with Kirovski’s ‘f***ing c***’ directed towards nobody in particular after a poorly placed pass – does he kiss his mother with that mouth?

The fast paced game ended 3-0 to the Earthquakes – so the LA team bus tires remain unmolested for the short drive back to the airport. It was a good day for the not-so-young Turk who scored two goals: a header off a set piece in the fifteenth minute, and then another past the keeper seven minutes later.  Ellis McLoughlin, himself signed after trials earlier this year, scored the third as the clock wound down.  The intensity of play when you are fighting for a position on the starting squad, coupled with the proximity of my flimsy chair just feet from the sideline, made for an entertaining day off.

I was so close to the action that I avoided eye contact with Quakes coach Frank Yallop - just in case he thought I needed a run out.

(Photos: Lyndsay Radnedge, centerlinesoccer.com)